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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Cleaner Water

Water is important to us all. It plays a major role in all of our lives. Water is a fundamental human need. Access to clean water is one of the top priorities to many people. A lack of clean water restricts recreation, as well as having an economic impact on the communities.

There are many substances that can pollute a water way. One group of pollutants that has been getting a lot of attention recently is excess nutrients in the water. Having excess nutrients in the water has led to the expansion of the Gulf Hypoxia Zone. This is a zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has very little life. Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus create an excellent environment for algae to grow. When this explosion of algae dies off, the process of decomposition uses much of the oxygen that is available. Without enough oxygen, other organisms are unable to live in the area. This has economic ramifications for the states that are located in the area.

But why does this affect people in Illinois? Water runs downhill. This is an obvious statement. But think about it, and you realize that what happens in Illinois has an effect on states downstream and ultimately in the Gulf of Mexico. Illinois has developed a strategy to reduce nutrient loss. The goal of this strategy is to reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus by a total of 45%.

Excess nutrients in the water also can have an effect here in Illinois. Just like in the Gulf Hypoxia Zone, excess nutrients can create algae to explode. This can cause lakes and ponds to have very low oxygen levels and many marine and aquatic animals can be killed. Both recreation and the aesthetic of a pond and lake are negatively affected by algae.

There are three major sources of nutrients in the water: agricultural, point source (from factories and wastewater treatment plants), and urban storm water runoff. Looking at this list, it may look like only a few people or companies are contributing to the problem, so "why should I care?" We all eat, so we are all contribute to the agricultural source; we all use water in our homes and that has to be treated; and the nutrients that are in urban stormwater runoff come from our yards, gardens and parks. We all contribute to the nutrients in the water in some way. Every time it rains, water is leaving the area and it takes some of the nutrients in the soil.

So what can you do? As the general public you can help in several ways:

  1. Use fewer or less fertilizers on your yards and gardens. Focus on reducing the Nitrogen and Phosphorus that you use.
  2. Plant a rain garden or use other ways of increasing water infiltration.
  3. Install rain barrels at your home. Not only will this help to reduce stormwater runoff, but it will also save you some money.
  4. Support groups and organizations that restore wetlands that hold and use some of the nutrients in the rivers and streams. Wetland are natures filters and are very efficient at cleaning water
  5. Encourage your cities and towns to use "green" stormwater infrastructure.

For more information or questions, please contact Jason Haupt (


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